The story so far: Assam remerged four districts with the ones they were carved out of four days after the Election Commission of India (ECI) notified the initiation of the delimitation of Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies in the State on December 27, 2022. Many welcomed the ECI decision but questioned the use of the 2001 Census figures for the readjustment of the constituencies and an alleged bid to make Muslims less politically relevant.
What is delimitation and how is it carried out?
Delimitation is the process of redrawing boundaries of Lok Sabha and State Assembly constituencies based on a recent census to ensure each seat has an almost equal number of voters. It is ideally carried out every few years after a Census by an independent Delimitation Commission formed under the provisions of the Delimitation Commission Act. According to the ECI’s order, the Commission will design and finalise its own guidelines and methodology for the purpose of delimiting the constituencies. “During the delimitation exercise, the Commission will keep in mind the physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facility of communication, and public convenience and as far as practicable, the constituencies will be kept as geographically compact areas. Once a draft proposal for the delimitation of constituencies is finalised by the Commission, it will be published in the Central and State gazettes for inviting suggestions and objections from the general public,” the poll panel said.
Why was delimitation in Assam put on hold?
Delimitation panels were set up thrice (1952, 1962 and 1972) regularly before the exercise was suspended in 1976 in view of the family planning programmes in the States. The last Commission was set up in 2002 but before its exercise was completed in 2008, the delimitation of four north-eastern States – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland – was deferred due to “security risks” through separate presidential orders. Jammu and Kashmir was also left out of that delimitation exercise for similar reasons. Apart from law-and-order, various organisations in Assam, including the BJP, were opposed to delimitation in 2008 as they wanted it to be done only after the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to weed out “illegal immigrants”.
Why are some political parties critical of delimitation?
The Central government reconstituted the Delimitation Commission for the four north-eastern States and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir on March 6, 2020. The exercise was imminent but Section 8A of the Representation of People Act, 1950, cited by the ECI for initiating delimitation and the use of the 2001 Census data have raised hackles. Section 8A only allows reorientation and rules out any change in the total number of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies. “What’s the point if Assembly seats are not increased?” asked Raijor Dal MLA Akhil Gogoi. Airing a similar view, Congress leader Debabrata Saikia said basing the delimitation on the 2001 Census would be unjust, specifically after the ECI used the 2011 Census for completing the exercise in Jammu and Kashmir, where the number of constituencies increased. All India United Democratic Front MLA Aminul Islam sniffed a political agenda behind using the 2001 Census as the 2021 Census could reveal a few reserved Assembly seats now have Muslims in a majority, necessitating their de-reservation. Assam has 16 Assembly seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes and eight for the Scheduled Castes.
Why does the government see delimitation as Assam’s saviour?
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said delimitation can provide the safeguards that the NRC and the Assam Accord of 1985 envisaged to but failed. He said this in the context of a “demographic invasion” that the BJP and its regional allies think would eventually see Assam being taken over by Bengali-speaking or Bengal-origin Muslims. He batted for constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the indigenous people – as envisaged by the Assam Accord – to save Assam’s “law-abiding communities with small families” from “those who disregard government policies to produce 12 children”. Unlike the unsuccessful NRC, delimitation can save the future of Assam for at least two decades by ensuring the State Assembly is less affected by demographic changes, he said. The BJP and some NGOs believe the NRC draft list included too many “non-citizens” by leaving out “only” 19.06 lakh out of 3.3 crore applicants. The Chief Minister also asserted that political leaders not worry about losing out if more seats are ‘reserved for SCs and STs after the delimitation’, indicating at a rearrangement of seats from where Muslims have been a deciding factor. Three of the districts – Bajali, Biswanath and Hojai – merged with their parent districts have a sizeable Muslim population.